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Tom Philpott's Posts

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An internal audit exposes the USDA’s lax oversight of GM crop tests.

In a press release last June, the anti-GMO watchdog group Center for Food Safety questioned the USDA's oversight of tests involving genetically altered crops. The agency had just greenlighted a biotech company's proposal to grow test plots of rice containing human genes on 270 acres in North Carolina and Missouri, right in the middle of large-scale conventional rice production. The press release quotes a CFS scientist thusly: With this approval, USDA has signaled that it thinks it's okay to grow drug-producing crops near food crops of the same type, despite the threat of contamination ... There have already been numerous …

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Bush taps a GMO flack as his chief agricultural trade negotiator.

When Bush wants to kill a program or a department, he picks a clown to run it. Think of FEMA's disgraced "Brownie," who did such a "heck of a job" when disaster struck the Gulf Coast. When the president sees something real at stake for his corporate clients, though, he tends to anoint an ultra-qualified pro: someone, typically, with direct ties to the industry in question. In surely the most spectacular example, Bush placed responsibility for creating energy policy in the crude-stained hands of Dick Cheney. The world of agriculture presents its own examples. Over on Bitter Greens Journal last …

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Cheers and jeers for the GM seed giant.

Two takes on Monsanto crossed my path yesterday. One came from the stock market, the other from Fedco, the small vegetable-seed purveyor that supplies many small, sustainable-minded farms across the land, including my own Maverick Farms. The market applauded Monsanto Tuesday, driving its share price to an all-time high; Fedco, in its 2006 seed catalogue that arrived at Maverick the same day, gave it the finger. Monsanto shares surged 4 percent yesterday after the GM seed giant doubled its profit expectations for the current quarter. The company cited strong demand in Europe and the United States for its cash-cow Roundup …

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Severe labor shortages in the southwest may add

A society that relies on cheap food also relies on cheap labor. Look at the meat-processing industry. Worker conditions are so wretched, so little changed from Jungle days, that Human Rights Watch saw fit to issue a scathing report on the industry last January. Because meat is perishable and prohibitively expensive to keep frozen over long journeys, meat processing cannot readily be sent overseas -- unlike, say, manufacturing. So the trick, as the Human Rights Watch report shows in wrenching detail, is to recreate working conditions prevalent in places like Guatemala, here. Things are different in the large-scale fruit/vegetable business. …

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Sustainable-ag legend Joel Salatin can farm — but can he write?

Over the past 20 years, Joel Salatin has emerged as a sort of guru of the sustainable-food movement. His 500-acre Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va., is legendary among a small circle of foodies for its robustly flavored beef, pork, chicken, and eggs. Among farmers, Salatin has won cult status for his innovations in multi-species, pasture-based animal husbandry. But readers of his new book, Holy Cows & Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer's Guide to Farm Friendly Food, won't be quite as impressed. Good moos. Photo: iStockphoto. Styled as a how-to guide for consumers, the book strives to "inform you, the food …

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Despite a recent crackdown, Washington State’s raw-milk policy might point way forward.

In a nation riddled with diet-related maladies like obesity and diabetes, the official fear that greets raw milk is impressive. You can waltz into any convenience store and snap up foods pumped liberally with government-subsidized high-fructose corn sweetener, deep-fried in government-subsidized partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Yet in many states, teams of bureaucrats devote themselves to "protecting" us from raw milk -- and imposing onerous fines on farmers who dare sell it. Some states ban raw milk outright; others have erected elaborate barriers between farmer and consumer. Here in North Carolina, for example, I have to pretend I'm buying animal fodder …

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Corn-based packaging not as green as it looks

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a memorable piece on its front business page about corn overproduction in Iowa. Entitled "Mountains of Corn and a Sea of Farm Subsidies," the piece featured a photo of a monstrous pile of corn outside of a stuffed-to-capacity grain elevator, "soaring more than 60 feet high and spreading a football field wide," the text informs us. (Shame on me for not writing about this at the time; the piece has since gone premium.) One ingenious entrepreneur has even rushed out with "Ski Iowa" t-shirts, the article reports -- a funny echo …

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Three paths toward a green — and tasty — Thanksgiving

Of all the crimes against nature Thanksgiving inspires -- SUVs clogging the highways, planes shuttling fliers around the country, factory farms churning out millions of frozen turkeys -- the most grievous may be culinary. First, the above-mentioned turkeys typically taste like sawdust; cranberry "sauce," a gelatinous goo that ominously retains the shape of the can it slipped out of, doesn't help much. The standard vegetarian response -- a factory-shaped soybean log -- may be a case of the cure trumping the disease in terms of sheer horror. What, then, must you do, Grist reader? Here are three options for minimizing …

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WSJ: China’s oil-demand surge slackens

Peak-oil enthusiasts and skeptics alike will find much to chew on in this page-one piece from today's Wall Street Journal. By all accounts, China's explosive energy-demand growth over the past several years has strained the ability of OPEC and other oil producers to keep up. Now, the Journal claims, that pressure shows signs of easing: This year, China is on track to account for about 16% of the world's new oil consumption, little more than half last year's share. The Centre for Global Energy Studies estimates that Chinese demand will rise by about 230,000 barrels of oil a day this …

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The WSJ documents GM contamination

The Wall Street Journal came out with a terrific page-one article documenting "genetic pollution" -- the damage caused when genetically modified crops cross-pollinate with conventional crops. The article leads with an organic farmer in Spain whose sells his red field corn at a premium to nearby chicken farmers, who prize the product because it "it gives their meat and eggs a rosy color." (I'd be willing to bet that rosy color also translates to higher nutrition content.) Now the farmer is screwed -- his seeds, carefully bred over time, have become contaminated by GM corn from nearby farms. The rich …

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